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Bairbre McCarthy: Irish storyteller.

March is a busy month for Irish storytellers. I spoke with Bairbre McCarthy on the phone about her CD, The Keeper of the Crock of Gold: Irish Leprechaun Tales. Drawn from her book of Irish stories, the CD is a combination of "old retellings" and original stories by McCarthy that "stick up for the rights of Leprechauns." Throughout the stories, McCarthy weaves in sean-nos singing by her daughter Mary Willems and fiddle playing by Maura McNamara. In our conversation, she tells me about her roots, about her activism for Leprechaun rights, and about becoming a professional storyteller in America:

I'm from County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. When I came to America in 1980 on my summer holidays, I met my husband. We got married the following year, and we've been here ever since. I grew up on a horse farm--my father used to raise horses--and I got a trainer's license to train horses in Saratoga Springs. But the horses have to go south in the winter, because Saratoga is a little too snowy for racing. And so I was asked to teach a class in Irish history and language. And, of course, when you teach history you really do have to go back into the mythology.

It's so much a part of the Celtic culture; we have this oral tradition. The storyteller is a very important person in the community.

They make stories about all the great events and pass it down in the stories. And so this is how I became a professional storyteller (because, you know, in Ireland people don't think of themselves as professional storytellers). I was telling all these old stories as part of the history.

Everyone knows the Leprechauns over here, but I really don't think we were being fair to the poor Leprechaun. We're always grabbing his gold and shaking him, and not treating him very well. And basically, when people do that, they don't get very good results. The Leprechaun always tricks them. So, in the book, there are 10 stories. Three of them are original, old retellings. But the other ones, I made them up, because I was basically sticking up for Leprechaun rights, I guess. I felt if you treated the Leprechaun with respect, you might get better results. [On Volume 1 of the CD, tracks 2, 3, 4 and 6 are new stories by McCarthy.]

I really had a lot of fun with [writing new stories], because I've been a traditional storyteller for so long that I know what you need to put in there. So, really what I did is take all the same elements--like things happen in trees, and there are a lot of giants. I did use a lot of those old elements and a lot of actual history, and then just tied it in with a new story, that really had the Leprechaun helping people.

If you grow up in Ireland, everybody really is a storyteller. It has something to do with the culture, the fact that we have this oral culture. Things were passed down orally. So when I was a child, I heard stories from my parents, my grandparents. It was even part of the school curriculum. Once you started school, you had all these little stories that blended with the early history. We had a radio show every week with a very famous Irish storyteller, Eamon Kelly. It came on the air every week, and I remember my father gathering us all eight kids, and saying, "It's time! In My Father's Time" Or my father would just tell a story. We're very good in Ireland at entertaining ourselves.

I would never have thought of myself as becoming a professional storyteller until the opportunity just landed in my lap [in America], really, as far as people coming to ask me if I would tell stories. I still prefer the small setting, where everyone is cozy and sitting around in a circle. But I do end up doing big auditoriums, where I end up on the stage with a microphone, and everyone just sits in their seats.

I think storytelling brings you closer to people. Everybody has some good stories to tell. I really enjoy [it] when I get to do a workshop, where I help people develop their own stories or ideas. I also do some archiving of stories for communities, where we set up story-sharing sessions, and we invite people to come and have a cup of tea and either listen to, or tell, a story about the community. And then we set up a little recording booth. I like to be close to the people when I'm telling a story. I like to see their eyes, see what their expressions are as they're listening.

I'm happy that storytelling hasn't completely disappeared. Sometimes you hear of communities that are starting new storytelling clubs. When I do the workshops, it's usually personal stories. I think that people in this country don't know as many of the historical or mythical stories as we do in Ireland. I do feel like that's lacking here. It's a shame that they don't. I think everybody in Ireland knows all the stories of the mythology. They know all the Leprechaun stories, and they know all about the magical people who might have lived there thousands of years ago. We're big storytellers in Ireland.

Bairbre McCarthy's CD, The Keeper of the Crock of Gold: Irish Leprechaun Tales, was the March 2012 featured selection in the New York Folklore Society's CD-of-the-Month Voices in New York membership program. Her CDs are available in the New York Folklore Society's online store, gallery/store/music.html. For more information about Bairbre, visit

Anna Mule is the director of digital marketing and adjunct professor at Wagner College, where she curates the website, produces multimedia stories, directs social media strategies, and teaches video storytelling. With her organization "Media Folk," she also supports traditional arts and culture through multimedia production and archive management (
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Title Annotation:VOICES IN NEW YORK
Author:Mule, Anna
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Date:Sep 22, 2014
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